What Does a Dog's Nose Know?
From bombs to bedbugs, dogs can detect the faintest of scents. Can they also detect disease in humans?
The power of a dog’s nose is well known. Dogs have been used to sniff out drugs, detect bombs and even find bedbugs. But what if that remarkable ability could be used to detect some of the deadliest forms of cancer, and at the earliest stages?
The Pine Street Foundation, based in San Francisco, is trying to find out by putting the dog’s nose to the test. The Foundation is currently conducting research that focuses on ovarian cancer.
“We were interested in working with cancers for which early detection is difficult and for which early detection makes a big difference in treatment outcomes,” Executive Director Nicholas Broffman said.
A dog has more than 220 million olfactory receptors in its nose, while humans have only five million, making dogs’ sense of smell a thousand times greater. The current study uses that incredible sensitivity by asking dogs to distinguish between breath samples from patients with the disease and patients with endometriosis.
“We are training the dogs to differentiate between ovarian cancer and endometriosis by not associating the ‘smell’ of endometriosis with a reward,” Broffman said. “The idea is that the dogs will only associate what is unique to ovarian cancer with reward and won't indicate on breath samples that don't have that unique quality.”
The current research builds on an encouraging 2006 study conducted by the Foundation involving lung and breast cancer. It was based on the hypothesis that cancer cells emit different metabolic waste products than normal cells. In that study, five professionally trained scent dogs accurately distinguished breath samples from diseased patients from those who were disease-free. According to the study, the dogs’ ability to detect lung and breast cancer, at both early and late stages, was around 90%.
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